English is not my only language, but it’s the one I speak most often. I used to think that my efforts showed a marginal competence. I’m American. There are mediating details, but there it is. American spelling, American grammar; I talk like an American. In April I visited London.
I know a few folk from England. We tease each other about the vast cultural and linguistic divides that unite our countries. Differences in pronunciation are a common source of amusement. I like to serve plantains and canned cola to get that conversation going. Spelling is good for a few jokes, and who is Zed anyway? All in all teasing each other is good fun, but after visiting London I admit defeat.
In the central Yupik dialect there are different words for snow that’s falling and snow on the ground… drifting snow is different from a snow drift. Snow is culturally important and specificity is key to understanding. By that linguistic measure what idea did I find was most important to Londoners? In the United Kingdom, land of Bill Shakespeare and JK Rowling, I found a linguistic and cultural focus on genitalia and all things genital. Within moments of my arrival I was assaulted by this focus.
The tea on the plane was actually worse than the coffee on the plane. I drink tea most of the time. I carry a mug around with me in my house. I generally have a travel cup in hand when away from home. Unless I’m actually forbidden to have liquids on my person I’m carrying a cup, mug, glass or other container of tea. Ok, it’s an addiction. The tea on the plane was so bad that I had to consciously decide not to just open my mouth and let the sip I’d taken fall back out unswallowed. I have NEVER before sent back a cup of tea. I still maintain that it was made in the dregs of a pot of coffee that had been half rinsed out with old non-dairy creamer… whatever the case it was, in fact, undrinkable and I handed it back to the steward politely but firmly. By the time the plane landed the nicotine addicts and I were scratching at our arms in anticipation of a fix. The pair of black clad, skinny, pop eyed kids with bug bites on most of their visible skin looked sorry for me. I zoomed through customs and immigration and headed for the airport café. Earl Grey tea, just a little milk no sugar. It was ice cold. I asked the young woman behind the counter if she could warm it for me. What she said back to me was, roughly translated, that I should go have sex… violently. She was very specific. The actual sentence was nicely crafted: it had a noun phrase, it had a dependent verbal clause. There was choreography, there were props. ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘you would never hear that sentence in San Francisco.’ I wrote it down for later study. The English facility with their language makes me blush to pretend that I speak it.
Over the next week and a half I was treated to more of the same. The creativity and variety Londoners employ in allusion to genitalia is staggering. It is difficult to believe the sheer number of nouns that can be reused as genital synonyms. There are, naturally, all of the genital references we recall from our school days. In addition to those, Londoners will use any noun whose object is longer than it is wide, any noun referring to a thing that goes into something else or any proper male name to refer to a penis. In the same way, anything open on one or both ends, anything soft, anything covered in fur or hair, anything warm, anything intended as a container of any kind or any woman’s name seems to be used to refer to a vagina (oh, and a fanny, in London, isn’t a cute way of referring to someone’s rear end, so watch that one as well). Even this mind boggling array of potential genital references is not enough… because if you have eliminated every single one of those words there are all of the words that rhyme with any one of them. It’s exhausting. I took to assuming that everyone was making sexual comments and worked backwards to figure out what they might be.
By the end of my trip I was almost afraid to speak, so staggered was I by the native gesture of English spoken by Londoners. I found it difficult to open doors: the keys, the locks, oh no…. the knobs. I couldn’t rummage in my pocket. I couldn’t ask for mustard on my sausage roll… I most certainly couldn’t dip a spoon into my soup. It was paralyzing.
My friends know that I enjoy words, that I collect slang, that I do crossword puzzles. When I returned they each wanted to know a few Londonisms. I just offered them a dictionary. When we were in puberty we were right… it IS all sexual.